Jul 16, 2012

Batwa: Uganda Forest People’s Fading Heritage

Visiting a special trail in the Mgahinga National Park shows what used to be the home of the Batwa people and gives an understanding of their cultural heritage. 

Below is an article published by Coast Week:

Like the Brakumin of Japan, the Untouchables of India and the Gypsies of Europe, the Batwa of central Africa are also regarded as low class people in the society and often referred to as “forest” or “bush” people.

Stephen Barahirwa, a bush man turned tour guide is one of the thousands of the Batwa people who live on the foot of Mount Muhabura , here in the south western Ugandan district of Kisoro.

Through folk tales, Barahirwa talks of the vast cultural practices the Batwa had while still in the forests, their cherished former habitant that they depended on for shelter, food and medicine.

Batwa people were hunter-gatherers and fierce warriors who depended on the forests for their livelihood.

They depended on honey, wild fruits, meat and collected water from streams using bamboo stems.

Slept in grass thatched houses, wore animal skin and hides and migrated to another part of the forest once death occurred in the family.

They put their babies up in the tree branches as form of protection from wild animals in case the parents were away hunting.

They had a king who used to stay in a cave which had many compartments, some used as an armoury, meeting place, resting place for the king and also a hiding place in case of foreign invasion.

Barahirwa tells you this entire story as he takes you through a three hour Batwa Trail inMgahinga National Park located here. The National Park used to be the home of the Batwa people.

In 1991 government expelled them from the forests as a strategy to protect the habitat of the endangered mountain gorillas that also call Mgahinga home.

Now landless, the Batwa squat on borrowed land and work when they can for local farmers. This has greatly affected their lifestyle, a lifestyle the wish they could go back to, according to Barahirwa.

“The life style now is not good because we don’t own land; we are just squatters on other people’s land. Life is not easy for us“, he told Xinhua through an interpreter.

“Our children do not get quality education because whenever they reach secondary level they drop out of school because there is no one to pay their tuition,” he added.

Pontius Ezuma, the acting Conservation Area Manager for Mgahinga and Bwindi National Parks , told Xinhua that because of the mixing of the Batwa and now their hosts the Bafumbira, the Batwa’s language is now adulterated.

In order not to completely wipe out the Batwa heritage, government with assistance from the U.S. development aid agency, USAID, developed the Batwa Trail in Mgahinga National Park.

This is the only time some of the Batwa are permitted to re- enter their cherished forest as tour guides on the Batwa Trail.

A visit to the trail permits visitors to discover the magic of the indigenous people’s old home while partaking in nature walks and learning about the group’s cultural heritage.

During the moving cultural encounter tour, the Batwa demonstrate hunting techniques; gather honey; point out medicinal plants and demonstrate bamboo cups.

Guests are finally invited to the sacred Garama Cave, once home to the Batwa King, where the women of the community perform a sorrowful song which echoes eerily around the depths of the dark cave, and leaves guests with a striking and moving sense of the richness of the fading culture. 

The tour is part of the give back program since part of the tour fee goes directly to the guides and performers, while the rest goes toward the community fund to cover school fees and books, and assist in the purchase of new land for the Batwa.

Most Batwa are unable to earn money to provide for their families, as they have no land of their own.

In an interview with Xinhua, Ephrahim Kamuntu, minister of tourism said that the Batwa can preserve their heritage through the trail but not wishing to go back and live their forest lifestyle.

“There is no culture which is static and this is the challenge. You must keep your past because people without a past have no future but you must not be a prisoner of your past. So the challenge is balancing continuity and change,” he said, shortly after touring the Garama Cave on June 27.

“Batwa cannot be made museum pieces; they must go to school to join the rest of the world. No culture can survive unless it adapts to the global changes,” he added.

The Batwa have indeed started going to school and in 2010, one of their own Alice Nyamihanda graduated with a diploma in Development Studies.

Nyamihanda managed to beat the odds and attained a diploma after she got sponsorship from humanitarian agency, Adventist Development and Relief Agency.

She is not the only Batwa seeking decent education, there are others.

Nyamihanda is currently working with the United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda , an organization founded in 2000 to help support the Batwa in southwest Ugandato solve their land problems and help them develop sustainable alternative livelihoods.